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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

OPINION: Hansen’s Disease as Cultural Heritage

Time to challenge traditional preservation discourses and shine a light on leprosy history.

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The author (2nd from L) with fellow delegates in Seoul.

It was my great honor to attend the 2016 World Forum on Hansen’s Disease hosted by the Korean Federation of Hansen’s Disease Associations. Over three days, speakers elaborated on Hansen’s disease and its historical, social and cultural significance, addressing topics ranging from oral history and human rights to historic preservation and social stigma. It provided a venue for people who care about these issues to engage in some profound conversations.

Given my background in heritage studies, I was particularly interested in the discussions on the future of Hansen’s disease as cultural heritage in human history. Among the issues raised at the conference, historic preservation of Hansen’s disease and the nomination of World Heritage Sites were at the forefront of various exchanges.

While Hansen’s disease museums in Japan, South Korea, Norway and elsewhere provide the public with opportunities to learn about the disease’s history, the nomination as World Heritage sites of the physical environments where people affected by leprosy lived brings international recognition of a difficult past.

The traditional definition of heritage does not fit the history of a marginalized people.

This represents a change in what is considered worthy of preservation, as the traditional definition of heritage does not fit the history of a marginalized people. Places such as leprosy colonies were never a priority in historic preservation due to their lesser architectural value and subordinate importance in nation building. Plus, the relationship between society at large and those affected by leprosy was considered painful.

GOVERNMENT’S ROLE

For me, the highlight of the conference was the session focusing on the preservation of the cultural heritage of Hansen’s disease in South Korea. Over more than a decade, the government has expended efforts on preserving the history of Hansen’s disease, including the designation of the Sorokdo National Hospital as “Registered Cultural Heritage” in 2004 and the establishment of the Sorokdo National Museum in 2016.

During a roundtable session, expert panelists discussed museum displays, preservation of existing buildings on Sorokdo and the possibility of World Heritage Site nomination. Those taking part included hospital administrators, people affected by leprosy, sociologists, architectural historians and conservationists.

Hansen’s disease heritage can be considered a living heritage. Therefore, the participation of leprosy-affected people and their family members in the conference was meaningful and significant, especially when we consider the critical question frequently raised in the domain of heritage preservation: “Preservation of what, and for whom?”

The preservation of the history of Hansen’s disease raises some complicated issues, especially when it involves sites that still function as home to people affected by the disease and their families, who continue to be stigmatized and marginalized. There is a probability that nomination as a World Heritage Site, in the hope of preserving the history and physical environment of a leprosy settlement, might expose current inhabitants and make them more vulnerable.

On the other hand, leprosy settlements have much to offer the general population in terms of history, social commentary and public policy, and moves to preserve them reflect an awareness of the value in acknowledging a painful past.

The conference in Tokyo on Leprosy/Hansen’s Disease History as Heritage of Humanity hosted by the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation in early 2016 made a case for the importance of the history of Hansen’s disease to the world, and called for international collaboration on preserving this history. Now, strategies for achieving this are needed.

The open conversation regarding the history and historic preservation of Hansen’s disease in South Korea at the recent World Forum set a good example for other countries to follow. Some of the issues raised with regard to Korea, such as strategies of historic preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings on Sorokdo, may be facing other countries, too. It’s time to challenge traditional preservation discourses and envisage one that illuminates the history of Hansen’s disease.

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AUTHOR: Shu-yi Wang, PhD

Dr. Wang is an assistant professor adjunct of the Department of Landscape Architecture, Chinese Culture University, Taiwan.